Test Scores Rise in State Schools, but Racial, Economic Gaps Widen

Times Staff Writer

In the four years since the federal No Child Left Behind Act took effect, test scores in California schools have improved significantly, but the gaps between rich and poor, white and non-white, have widened, a research group said Thursday.

The report from the Washington-based Education Trust found that elementary school students nationwide are doing much better on standardized tests, with a slightly more mixed picture in middle and high schools. And nationally, the achievement gap that separates Latinos and African Americans from white students is closing, at least in the lower grades.

California was among a few states that saw the gaps widen.

Although test scores are rising among all ethnic and income groups, “California is actually accelerating gains for its white students and its affluent students, thereby widening gaps between groups,” said Daria Hall, one of the authors of the study.


Hall said she couldn’t explain why the gaps would be growing, but that it indicated the state wasn’t focusing enough on poor children and children of color. She said states that have concentrated their “focus, expertise and resources” on those children have seen the gaps tighten.

“I concur,” said Jack O’Connell, California’s superintendent of public instruction. He said the state has initiated programs aimed at children from at-risk groups. And he said the high school exit exam, which students must now pass to graduate, will be a tool to raise achievement.

Ultimately, O’Connell said, the best way to close the gaps is through universal, high-quality preschool. An initiative calling for government-paid preschool for 70% of the state’s 4-year-olds will be on the June ballot, a measure O’Connell supports.

No Child Left Behind, President Bush’s signature education policy act, was signed into law in January 2002. It set standards that schools must meet, or show growth toward meeting, based on test scores, and required schools to raise scores among all ethnic and racial groups.

Critics say the law overemphasizes standardized test scores and has forced public schools to focus on test-taking rather than more creative forms of learning. Supporters point to evidence that student achievement, as demonstrated by test scores, is improving.

The Education Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to raising academic performance and closing the achievement gaps, examined elementary school test scores in 31 states and found that reading scores improved from 2003 to 2005 in all but four, and math scores in all but three. California scores rose 8 percentage points in reading -- better than all but four -- and 5 points in math.

Latinos and African Americans improved at a faster clip than whites did in math. But in reading, poor children saw slower growth than affluent children did.

(The study did not look at Asian American scores. Hall said Asian Americans are not a large group in most states and are not generally considered at risk.)

Under No Child Left Behind, tests vary from state to state, and California’s exams are considered especially tough.

“California should get credit for that, but it’s not enough to just have rigorous standards; you also have to have students meeting those standards, and that’s where California is struggling,” Hall said.

California students overall showed impressive gains in middle school, with reading scores up by 9 percentage points -- better than any state but Michigan -- and math scores by 7. But in middle schools, the achievement gaps were also greater, with whites outpacing African American and Latino students in both math and reading, and affluent students outpacing poor ones.

The report did not look at California high schools because, it said, the state does not report the scores of first-time test-takers.

Nationally, high school scores improved in most states that were examined, but the gap between whites and others widened in many of them.